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Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Sophistry and Political Philosophy

Published in Books

Is man the measure of all things? This question has been at the forefront of philosophy ever since Protagoras proclaimed that man is the measure of all things. Sometime before he died in 420 BCE Protagoras locked horns with Socrates in a debate captured for us by Plato. It is a close reading of these works of Plato that is the subject of this book by Robert Bartlett, the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College.


A dramatic artistic impression of Protagoras, by the 17th century painter Jusepe de Ribera, graces the cover of this exploration of Plato's two texts, the Protagoras and the Theaetetus. Despite his own vast learning and study, Bartlett admits more than once that the meaning embedded in Plato's works is far from transparent. For example, on pg. 78, he writes “It is difficult to know what to make of these challenging exchanges.”


He is referring to a discussion between Protagoras and Socrates on the subject of wisdom, courage and boldness. It occurs in Plato's text Protagoras. Socrates attempts to show it is the wisest who are boldest, and, being boldest, most courageous. So, Socrates concludes, “according to this argument, the wisdom [in question] would be courage.”


Bartlett's comment on this point of the argument is illuminating. “Showing much boldness or at least confidence himself, Protagoras calmly declines to be force-fed this highly compressed argument: Socrates' recollection isn't a noble one.” As the argument progresses, Protagoras insists that “courage and wisdom are not the same thing.” Bartlett poses a pregnant question: “Is it really possible for Protagoras still to maintain that one can be both 'very courageous' and 'very ignorant'?”


During the argument Protagoras charges Socrates with committing a logical fallacy, one that Socrates never rebuts. Discerning meaning in what did not happen (a rebuttal) is the author's gift to the reader. He opens our eyes to what this means. Socrates' “silence has the effect of bolstering Protagoras' confidence or boldness: we see before our eyes the marriage of boldness and (what is taken to be) wisdom issuing in the courage to stand one's ground or to fight back, at least in argument.”


Bartlett is equally insightful in his analysis of the Theaetetus. Protagoras states “For the sort of things that seem to each city to be just and noble, these things are in fact for it, for so long as it recognizes them.” Bartlett regards this “as frank a statement as one could wish for of the 'moral relativism' of Protagoras”, who goes on in Plato's text to draw a distinction between the point of view of “the wise” and that of “the cities.” The wise are extramoral or amoral, while cities exhibit morality through-and-through.


The existence of this chasm,” writes Bartlett, “must be an important part of the 'education' for which the capable sophist is responsible.” As the first man to declare himself to be a sophist, “Protagoras thus defends the idea of wisdom in general and his own superior wisdom in particular.” Whether or not Socrates really defeats Protagoras at his own game is a question I will leave to the studious reader of this entrancing book. But Bartlett, in conclusion, contends that “Socrates did not succumb to the chaos-inducing motion that can go together with the thought that a human being is the measure” of all things.


This books is, as the author states, about “the battle between political philosophy and sophistry at its peak.” With extraordinary erudition, Bartlett has made this a crucial text in both disciplines.



Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates (248 pages) is $40 by University of Chicago Press.

The Measure of Courage: The Immigrant

Published in Theatre

The Immigrant was first performed in 1985 and has become a staple of theatre companies ever since. I first reviewed the play in 2012, when it was performed in Ft. Lauderdale. Don Toner, who is directing the play at the Austin Playhouse for the second time, told me that the actors who portrayed the Jewish couple in his first production here in Austin 28 years ago coached the actors in this play with the dialect and songs.


Imagine a man with business sense, a woman with a big heart, and a young Russian Jew with drive and a dream. The result of this unlikely synergy in a small Texas town a century ago is The Immigrant. Set in Hamilton (pop. 1200), 120 miles north of Austin, the performance takes place on a minimalist stage set against an ever-changing backdrop of period photos of the real-life characters that inspired the play. It all serves to enhance the often dramatic and sometimes comical plot.


In the lead role of Haskell Harelik is Joseph Garlock as a young immigrant from Russia (circa 1906). In Hamilton he encounters the husband and wife team of Milton and Ima Perry, played by Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams. Part way through the play they are joined by Haskell's wife, portrayed by Estrella Saldana. This tight group make the text sparkle: a superb individual and quartet performance.


The play is a study in courage at many levels. As Ima says to Haskell, “travelling thousands of miles, putting on a new language, and eating my cooking: if that's not courage I don't know what is!”


Toner says thatWith all the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewing out of the White House these days, it is good to be reminded that this country was built by immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Their diversity, hard work, and love of country are truly what makes us great.”


But as some members of the audience said, the immigrants of a century ago were committed to integrating, and often anxious to slough off the language and customs of their heritage to become Americans. This is not always the case with 21st century immigrants to the U.S., and the same can be said for immigrants to Canada and European countries. Whatever the case, this play takes the blinkers off to let anyone who sees it regard immigration in a different way, and that power will endure as long as immigration (forced or otherwise) continues to shape the nations of Earth.


The Immigrant will be at the Austin Playhouse until Jan. 28, 2018.


Lead photo: Huck Huckaby and Joseph Garlock


second photo: Cyndi Williams and Huck Huckaby


Follow this link to read my review of this play from 2012:




Casanova in Fort Worth

Published in Miami News

Casanova. Even 300 years after his life, the name evokes a certain frisson. But why? The 342-page catalogue accompanying an exhibit about him has this to say.


“Tall, olive-skinned, and muscular, Casanova exuded mesmeric charm, beguiling men and women alike with traits that would be repellent in others. The daughter of an Englishman living in Venice called him vain, unbearable, and, as soon as he began to speak, irresistible.”


While I just said the exhibit is about Casanova, that is not strictly the case. The intent of the directors from the three host museums (Museum of Fine Arts [Boston], Kimbell Art Museum [Fort Worth] and Fine Arts Museum [San Francisco] was “to create- through bringing together paintings, sculpture, works on paper, silver, ceramics, furniture and costume- the context within which Casanova expressed his values and views on life and culture.”


Those viewing the exhibit, which opens in San Francisco on Feb. 10 following its recent run at the Kimbell, will find it difficult to capture the essence of Casanova. I spoke to a long-time viewer of art exhibits who said she found the exhibit very beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying. For those who have the time, I recommend a careful reading of the excellent catalogue before seeing the exhibit, as it provides a lot of texture showing how the various displays weave the story of his life.


One thing the catalogue does not illustrate are the most arresting for the viewer to the exhibit: a series of tableaus depicting life in the 18th century. The one shown here evokes a raucous card game. The player seated is a professional swindler who has been caught with a card up his sleeve. The gentleman who has been swindled is shown rising so abruptly that his chair is flung backwards.


Understanding what this has to do with Casanova is an example of how the museum patron has to study the descriptions and make connections. When Casanova arrived in London he went to see Teresa Cornelys. He believed her daughter to also be his daughter. Teresa had a notorious mansion, Carlisle House, which was THE society venue for masked balls and gambling. Casanova claimed he met all the royalty and nobility of England at Carlisle House, except for King George, his wife, and the Princess of Wales.


The staging of masked balls there and in Venice, where Casanova spent several years, also explains the appearance of several paintings depicting masked people. Among these is a delightful pair by Giovanni Tiepolo, The Minuet and The Charlatan, both from 1756. Like the card game tableau, these represent something akin to what Casanova saw, but there is no direct link.


King George IIIThe closest one comes to the real Casanova is in the form of books he wrote, including a science fiction novel, described in the exhibit as nearly unreadable. I was expecting to learn more about it from the catalogue, but neither this nor any of his other textual works are depicted. This emphasizes all the more the necessity to closely study both the catalogue and the exhibit to get the full benefit of the collaboration: dozens of museums from Canada, the United States and Europe have lent items, and this alone makes it worth seeing. I was especially pleased to see a portrait of King George III that I have not seen despite many trips to London. It is on loan from the Bank of England Museum, which curiously is not listed in the catalogue as a lender. Likewise, the painting does not appear in the catalogue.


This portrait occupies a place in the exhibits' final room, which offers sculptures and portraits of some of the most famous people Cananova met. These include Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Pope Benedict XIV, and Rousseau. A spectacular way to end a complex and fascinating glimpse into an 18th century life of grand excess.


Next on display at the Kimbell in Forth Worth is a collection of 400 artworks from Asia, collected by Sam and Myrna Myers. It opens March 4, 2018. Visit the website for details:




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